Still a Safe Bet?

Despite the networking slowdown, it's wise to specialize with Cisco's training options.

In partnering circles, Cisco is synonymous with specialization.

The networking giant launched a specialization program for its channel allies in 1999, starting with a wide-area networking specialization. Since then, Cisco has rolled out 11 additional specializations for its partners. The specializations cover broadband technology, voice, security, and even the age-old Systems Network Architecture.

Obtaining a Cisco specialization can help partners stand out from the network consulting and integration crowd, according to Cisco. Beyond the differentiation factor, specialization has become a key component of Ciscos certification initiative. Partners who specialize earn points toward certification within the Cisco Channel Partner Program.

To gain the specialist label, a company must have at least one account manager (sales person), one systems engineer, and one field engineer take and pass the applicable exam. The systems engineer must be at least a Certified Cisco Design Associate, while the field engineer must be at least a Cisco Certified Network Associate. Previously, test takers had to be career- certified at the professional, as opposed to associate, level.

A Cisco spokesman says the company doesnt require any particular training regimen for companies pursuing its specializations. So, an engineer in the habit of memorizing Cisco tech manuals can "test out." Still, "the majority go through training," the spokesman adds.

Getting Into Training

A number of technical training companies offer courses to prepare students for Ciscos specialization exams. Thus far, most of the course tracks are geared toward Ciscos IP telephony and security specializations, the two areas in which training providers report the most customer interest.

For example, Skyline Computer Corp., a Cisco Learning Solutions Partner in Campbell, Calif., provides a "boot camp" for Ciscos AVVID product line to ready students for Ciscos Internet protocol telephony specialization. For the security specialization, the company offers a week of training on Ciscos Secure PIX Firewall

Similarly, Global Knowledge and KnowledgeNet, both Cisco Learning Solutions Partners, offer courses for the IP telephony and security specializations.

"IP telephony [training] is by far the most universal in demand," says Don Leatham, senior product marketing director at KnowledgeNet. "Cisco is pushing very hard in this particular area." Cisco rewards IP telephony specialists with 30 points toward certification—the most points Cisco offers.

KnowledgeNet, meanwhile, is evaluating the network management and wireless LAN specializations as areas in which it may develop training tracks, according to Leatham.

Courses in traditional classrooms generally run 4 to 5 days and cost $2,000 to $3,000. On average, a typical test taker may need to take one to four courses to prepare for the specialization exam. One training exec says those pursuing specialization can expect to take 10 to 15 days of training.

Service providers arent eager to keep billable resources in classrooms for extended periods. But training firms are developing online options for more flexible training times.

KnowledgeNet offers its courses online via KnowledgeNet Live. The company breaks up the traditional 5-day classroom course into six 3-hour online sessions, which are led by two instructors. The sessions are spread over three weeks. Students are able to review recorded lectures and do lab assignments (KnowledgeNet simulates the applicable hardware via Internet) at their own pace.

Other companies mix online and classroom-based training. "We are working with Cisco and some of our other partners to create a combination experience," says Mike Zanotto, Skylines managing director. This hybrid approach may reduce five days of classroom training to two days, by handling lectures and other "conceptual pieces" online, he says.

Global Knowledge also provides "blended" training solutions, featuring both online and classroom elements, according to Chuck Terrien, VP of Cisco training worldwide at Global Knowledge. Such solutions are not yet available for the companys specialization-oriented courses, but Terrien says IP telephony and security are "high on the list" for the blended approach.

If the price of training is still too high, Comstor offers another option: use its certifications. The Chantilly, Va., distributor has Cisco specializations in IP telephony, security, and wireless among other areas, says Joseph Heinzen, VP of professional services at Comstor.

But companies seeking to gain, or maintain, certification will want to specialize on their own to get the requisite points. Bill Yassinger, director of network solutions and services at Forsythe Solutions Group, says the company has completed Cisco specializations in network management, wireless, and VPN security.